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Following Sen. Barack Obama’s recent thumping in Democratic primary states that have large working-class or rural white voting populations, political analysts question whether those voters will support him in a general election. Sen. Hillary Clinton has highlighted this gap in support in addition to pointing out how important she believes these voting populations will be if a Democrat is to take back the White House this fall. Some pundits have repeatedly asked: Could their reluctance to vote for Obama be a “black thing?”
It is definitely an elephant in the room, says Michael Dimock, an associate director at the Pew Research Center. “There is the perspective that race is a part of this–that he appears different to people, that there are people for whom race is still a factor–and that’s certainly affecting some segments of voters within the Democratic primaries and potentially in the general election,” he says.
According to exit polls conducted in a number of states, some voters admitted that race was a factor in how they cast their ballots. In Pennsylvania, for example, one in five voters said race was a factor for them and supported Clinton by 59 to 41. White voters in that state who said race was a factor overwhelmingly chose Sen. Clinton over Obama by a margin of 76% to 24%. “Most whites said it’s a factor in their vote, so it’s a small slice of the public, potentially, but it is out there,” Dimock says.
It’s also not new, says Anthony Corrado, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution. “I’m not sure it’s as big a problem as it’s been highlighted. Obama has shown surprisingly strong support among white voters, particularly among better-educated, middle-income white voters. The issue regarding the rural, white, working-class, less-educated cohort shows that in a race with Clinton, particularly in the Midwestern industrial belt, that that vote preferred her to him,” he says.
David Bositis, senior research analyst at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, believes that Obama’s so-called blue-collar problem is more regionally and culturally based, citing the results in Oregon, which also has a large white working-class voting population, compared with how little support he received from this group in West Virginia. “There’s a problem of a cultural connection with Appalachia,” Bositis says. “To West Virginia voters, he tends to come across as very intellectual and elite, so that’s one problem. And they tend to be more comfortable with what they’re familiar with and they’re obviously more familiar and comfortable with Clinton than Obama.”
So, how can he win over this core constituency? Bositis doesn’t believe Obama necessarily has to do anything other than “run a good campaign.”
“And if he picks the right vice president, like Virginia Sen. Jim Webb, he’ll do well enough with those voters,” Bositis adds.
But he also believes Obama can win without them. “He already has a coalition that is heavy on more educated white voters, and they are a larger part of the population than white working-class voters.” Bostis predicts that Clinton’s huge